I’ve allowed myself a little time to pass since watching the last episode of Ozark before posting this review. That’s allowed a little perspective, and I have to say the appeal of Ozark grows with the passing of time. It presents a dark, compelling crime drama, peppered with characters you can’t help but become attached to, even though you know they should be in jail. As such, Ozark sits alongside other dramas dealing with families living a life of crime, be they The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. My view is that what differentiates Ozark from those other series is the pace of its storytelling and the way it deals with several plot lines at the same time. At times it feels like it’s galloping along, its story almost out of control. That’s both its strength, and at times, its weakness.

Let’s have a quick set up:  Unlike The Sopranos, this family – the Byrdes – are not instigators of a criminal enterprise. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) is an uncommonly clever accountant who can launder money to a tee, but once he decides to apply his talents to support a Mexican drug cartel, he works hard to try to extricate his family from out of its clutches. That family is wife Wendy (Laura Linney), daughter Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner). The story of Ozark is not just about how the family negotiates its way through crime, but how that criminality strains relationships within the family – between husband and wife, and parent and child.

And then there are the other hubs of characters around the Byrdes. There are a lot of balls up in the air at any one time, and the series requires you to keep your wits about you and pay attention. Your allegiances to various characters are being pulled this way and that. It all gets rather giddy at times. Mostly, this is a very good thing.

So, once the Byrds relocate from their home in Chicago to the Ozark lakes region of Missouri, they are in the patch of different people from a different culture – the Snells, powerful landowners and runners of their own opium growing industry; and the Langmores, a local family, poor, used to a criminal life, and apparently always on the back foot.

And there are others too: the Kansas City Mob, a corrupt local politician called Charles Wilkes (Darren Goldstein), and the FBI, front footed by two agents in particular – Roy Petty (Jason Butler Harner), and Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes). And the Mexican cartel has its own agents in the Byrdes backyard, namely lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer, and the cartel’s hitman, Nelson (Nelson Bonilla).

And because Marty and Wendy need to find local businesses to launder money through, their network of acquaintances grows. There’s a local woman running a lakeside holiday camp, a funeral director, a couple running a casino. By the time you add in a marriage counsellor, a tragedy-stricken local priest, a hapless real estate agent, and an ailing elderly man who shares accommodation with the Byrdes, you are left with an entire community to follow.  

Ozark leads you on a merry dance, as Marty and Wendy are bounced from one set of characters to another, constantly having to think on their feet, and talk their way out of crisis after crisis. It’s exciting, but at times it feels like a headlong rush that the writers aren’t always in control of. 

Example: towards the end of season two, the FBI discover human remains in a field. By the end of this episode the Byrdes have managed to subsitute the bodies for other remains, so that any suspicion of them being murder victims is removed. I recall asking myself at the time how the Byrdes could possibly have gained access to bodies under FBI protection to do the swap. It wasn’t addressed at all in the episode. It felt like the writers realised they had backed themselves into a corner, and in the next episode they allowed one quick piece of dialogue to provide an explanation of how the bodies were switched. It felt like a quick backtrack to fill out a hole in the plot.

It was around this time of season two that it felt a little like Ozark was heading into farcical territory. The dilemmas faced by the Byrdes just came so quickly, one after the other, that drama seemed to be being overtaken by black comedy. This may have been the intention, but I suspect it wasn’t.

Despite these concerns, Ozark drives the viewer along with such force that it’s very hard to stay cynical or wary for too long. And it is of course our attachment to Ozark’s characters which hooks us in the most. 

We’ll start with the Byrdes. Jason Bateman’s Marty gets top billing (and he directs a number of episodes, so all kudos to him) but his is an undemonstrative lead character. He is a consistent throughout all the first three seasons, despite being tested, severely and constantly. All manner of mayhem swirls around him, But Marty stays staunch and calm and calculating to protect his family. His accountant mind analyses and weighs risks. He is the ultimate diplomat.

Laura Linney’s Wendy is another matter. She is one of several strong female characters in Ozark. We meet her and Marty when she is in the middle of an affair. But because of the threat posed by the Mexican cartel, she and Marty must work together for the safety of their family. After Marty tells her of his cartel connection, she initially endorses it and pushes him further. She becomes as much of a driver of the family’s criminal career than Marty, and often more so.

Wendy is clever, perceptive, and can read people like a book. Years of political campaigning in Chicago have honed her people skills and her ability to manoeuvre others to her way of thinking. Laura Linney’s portrayal of Wendy’s at times scheming personality is masterful. She wears her emotions more on her sleeve than Marty, and so we see her scheming, her strength and her frailty. And this reaches a climax in season three, when Wendy has to balance her concern for the mental health of her brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey) against the threat posed to her whole family by the cartel. Linney’s performance in showing us this conflict is award winning.

Ozark’s other female characters are often pulling the strings in the storyline, and this is another of the series’ points of difference.  The local crime family the Snells at first appear a tandem act of husband Jacob and wife Darlene, but it is Lisa Emery’s Darlene who emerges as the true force, an unhinged matriarch of unswerving loyalty to her own, and deep mistrust of outsiders.

But perhaps the most compelling of all Ozark’s characters, of any age or gender, is Ruth Langmore, as played by Julia Garner. She is young, street smart and effectively heads a family of older male down and outs, including her own murderous father. Ruth swears like a trooper and takes command, desperately trying to keep her ragtag family afloat. But Marty’s arrival pulls at her loyalty to her own kin, as he employs her, gives her responsibility, and trusts her. As Ozark proceeds we see more of Ruth’s vulnerabilities, and how she struggles to manage these competing loyalties. Julia Garner’s performance gives us both the toughness and the inner frailty of this character. I suspect I am not the only viewer who cares most about her above all others in this series.

In a couple of instances I thought Ozark’s writers didn’t quite get a character right. FBI agent Roy Petty’s histrionics at being thwarted by Marty wore thin after a while, and cartel lawyer Helen Pierce, at first a menacing presence, became a confused character to me. The way she switched in and out of apparent friendliness to the Byrdes didn’t work for me, and in particular the way the character bounced back from being tortured by the cartel, as if it was a mere trifle, was odd to say the least.

So where does Ozark go from here? The end of season three clearly sets up at least one more season. Like many other modern series, the writers are happy to kill off characters, and part of the thrill of watching is trying to figure out who may be next to meet their maker. So far, the core of the Byrde family has remained intact. But you can’t help thinking that at least one of them will pay the ultimate price for a life of crime and double dealing. I mentioned at the start of this review that I’d waited a while before writing it. During that time I’ve dipped into a few more programmes. I haven’t found one yet which matches the pulling power of Ozark. For me it doesn’t quite reach the level of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, but if and when season four of Ozark rolls around, I’ll be there.

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